American Popular Culture Home American Popular Culture Home
American Popular Culture Home About Americana Contact Americana American Popular Culture Archive
Emerging Pop Culture
Magazine Home
Become a member!
Receive our
Visit the Bestsellers Archive
The Postmodern Proctor:
Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism in
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible

Many critics, as E. Miller Budick reminds us, believe that “Miller’s Crucible…fails to reach the social, historical and (therefore) moral depth of a great work of art." Budick records one such view in his article “History and Other Spectres in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible": “In his Defense of Historical Literature, David Levin has argued that Arthur Miller’s The Crucible fails to achieve artistic profundity because of Miller’s inability to project seventeenth-century sensibilities and thus to sympathize with them. The play, in Levin’s view, and in the views of many other critics as well, is not seriously historical and, therefore, not seriously literary or political."

For the play to be considered “a great work of art," a critic like Levin wants Miller to create a realistic representation of the time period in which the play takes place, a forward projection of a hypothetical seventeenth century.

Other critics have also rallied for a realistic representation of the past. For example, Edmund S. Morgan in “Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and the Salem Witch Trials: A Historian’s View" argues that the profounder implications of the work are darkened by the identification of Puritanism as the antagonist. He concedes that if “the artist binds himself too closely to known factual details, the result may bring aesthetic disaster…And the historical record is almost never sufficiently full to equip the artist with the details he needs for persuading [the audience], details of things said and seen and heard, without which his enterprise is doomed. Although he does not mind that Arthur Miller, after studying the “massive two volume record of the trials located in the Essex County Archives at Salem, Massachusetts," changed the eleven-year-old Abigail Williams from a child into a woman or that he manufactured her love affair with John Proctor (actually sixty years older at the time of the trials), a love affair, as William J. McGill notes, that exists nowhere in the records, Morgan feels that the partial identification of Puritanism as antagonist allows us to flatter ourselves and miss the hard and valuable lessons history has to teach us.

Specifically, he states: “Man is the antagonist against which human dignity must always be defended: not against Puritanism, not against Nazism or communism, or McCarthyism, not against the Germans or the Russians or the Chinese, not against the Middle Ages or the Roman Empire. As long as we identify the evil in the world with some particular creed or with some people remote in time or place, we flatter ourselves and cheapen the dignity and greatness of those who resist evil. The Germans, we say, or the Russians are inhuman beasts who trample humanity in the mud. We would never do such a thing. Belsen is in Germany. Salem Village is in the seventeenth century. It is a comforting and specious thought. It allows us to escape from the painful knowledge that all of us are capable of evil. The glory of human dignity is that any man may show it. The tragedy is that we are all equally capable of denying it."

Here Morgan argues that Puritanism did not cause the Salem witch trials; all different kinds of people did – humans are equally capable of committing such atrocities. By 1692, he explains, the witch-hunting craze was sweeping Europe: “During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries some thousands of witches were executed in the British Isles, an estimated 75,000 in France, 100,000 in Germany, and corresponding numbers in other European countries." In fact, the Salem trials ended relatively quickly and with far fewer casualties, a testament, he believes, to the Puritan conscience. Also, the temptation in reviewing the trials in our country is to blame the Puritan clergy which Morgan believes is “all nonsense." Prosecutors and defendants alike were Puritan, and the role of the clergy was mostly a deterring one. Although the clergy was not loud enough soon enough, the protest against the legitimacy of “spectral evidence" eventually ended the Salem hysteria. The people realized the trials were unfair. On January 15, 1697, they even set aside a “day of fasting, in which the whole colony might repent."

As we well know, Aristotle explains in the Poetics that the best writers touch universal human experience through the telling of a particular event. This is the “moral depth" in a work of art that critics like Edmund S. Morgan and David Levin try to find in The Crucible – and cannot. For Morgan in particular, the juxtaposition – Proctor vs. Puritanism – allows us to identify with the flawed Proctor and to distance ourselves from Puritanism. Thus the author offers “his audience an escape they do not deserve." We do not recognize ourselves in Miller’s Puritans, Morgan argues, so we are deprived of the shock of recognition from which we learn the great lessons of history. Once we recognize the universal truth that we are imperfect, only then, his reasoning goes, can we work toward achieving perfection in what Perry Miller termed “this world of imperfections." According to Morgan, Arthur Miller let this point slip right through his fingers.

Another critic, John Gassner, notes that the “Broadway production of The Crucible…was received with qualification." Indeed, Gassner himself points out problems he sees in the play. He states that it “had a little too much pomp at times that better dramatic poetry might have transfigured, and too much stiffness that the author might have avoided had he dealt with his own times and been less conscious of period"; there exists a “certain stiffness in the characterization"; the play is, indeed, “imperfect." Gassner concludes his critique by observing the following: “My major regret about this writer is that he is not enough of a poet. I doubt that any post-Shakespearean dramatist could have solved the problems inherent in Miller’s material, but a true poet could have transcended them. He could have placed the play beyond time and locality and carried us into the center of tragic vision. A more poetic playwright could also have economized on those parts of the plot that are necessarily merely transitional and supplementary and therefore are relatively flat."

Walter Kerr, in his 1953 review in the New York Herald Tribune, wrote, “The Crucible, which opened at the Martin Beck Thursday,…seems to me to be taking a step backward into mechanical parable, into the sort of play which lives not in the warmth of humbly observed souls but in the ideological heat of polemic." For Kerr, Miller’s play is an analytical argument, a treatise, rather than a heartfelt play about human lives. He asserts: “Salem, and the people who live, love, fear and die in it, are really only conveniences to Mr. Miller, props to his thesis. He does not make them interesting in and for themselves, and you wind up analyzing them, checking their dilemmas against the latest headlines, rather than losing yourself in any rounded, deeply rewarding personalities. You stand back and think; you don’t really share much."

Kerr views The Crucible as a sort of research paper on a topic; he doesn’t feel that Miller is sympathetic with his characters which, in turn, disallows the audience to be sympathetic toward them. Rather, Miller and the audience coldly dissect the political message of the play and never feel for the characters and their situation.

Many critics offers negative comments like those I have just recounted. “The first act is too diffuse," John Ferres might say, or the “treatment of the plot is too conventional after Death of a Salesman." Despite this barrage of criticism leveled at the play, it was revived off-Broadway a few years after it originally opened where it ran for a remarkable 500 performances; it played in France for several consecutive seasons; it maintains a permanent place in the repertories of illustrious companies like that of Sir Laurence Olivier’s National Theater in England; next to Death of a Salesman, it remains Miller’s most popular play both in the classroom and in the theater. Since it off-Broadway revival, Ferres notes, it has been in continuous production in the countries and overseas; published copies of the play fly off bookstore shelves; in 1996, The Crucible was even made into a film starring such Hollywood notables as Winona Ryder, Daniel Day Lewis, and Joan Allen who received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Elizabeth Proctor.

So why, despite savage censure, do audiences, theater groups, and filmmakers still appreciate this work?

The answer may reside in the fact that the protagonist, John Proctor, represents the postmodern condition of humanity. In him, audiences may have found the anxieties and pressures that comprise what Fredric Jameson in “Postmodernism and Consumer Culture" calls “a new type of social life and a new economic order – what is often euphemistically called modernization, postindustrial or consumer society, the society of the media or the spectacle, or multinational capitalism." The individual in this society is overwhelmed by “internal contradiction and by external resistance" which, and I am still following Jameson, result from societal conditions like the following: “New types of consumption; planned obsolescence; an ever more rapid rhythm of fashion and styling changes; the penetration of advertising, television, and the media generally to a hitherto unparalleled degree throughout society; the replacement of the old tension between city and country, center and province, by the suburb and by universal standardization; the growth of the great networks of superhighways and the arrival of automobile culture."

Although Miller’s play does not literally and directly cope with the anxieties Jameson lists, anxieties that construct the schizophrenic, postmodern self, Miller’s Proctor is deeply divided and overwhelmed. Audiences may appreciate Proctor because they watch him struggle with his divided moral conscience and an overwhelming institution. These struggles are postmodern struggles. Proctor is the quintessential postmodern man.

In our limited time together, I want to examine just two characteristics relating to Proctor that are the most strikingly postmodern: schizophrenia and anxiety over repressive institutions.

Schizophrenia, as Jameson uses the terms in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, does not pretend to be a literal diagnosis of a severe psychological disorder. Rather, the term is appropriated from psychoanalysis because it provides a loose approximation of a less severe psychological phenomenon that occurs in the postmodern psyche. Here, Jameson summarizes the elements of Lacanian and Saussurean theory that comprise this problem: “Lacan describes schizophrenia as a breakdown in the signifying chain, that is, the interlocking syntagmatic series of signifiers which constitute an utterance or meaning … His conception of the signifying chain essentially presupposes one of the basic principles (and one of the great discoveries) or Saussurean structuralism, namely, the proposition that meaning is not a one-to-one relationship between signifier and signified, between the materiality of language, between a word or a name, and its referent or concept. Meaning on the new view is generated by the movement from signifier to signifier. What we generally call the signified – the meaning or conceptual content of an utterance – is now rather to be seen as a meaning-effect, as that objective mirage of signification generated and projected by the relationship of signifiers among themselves. When that relationship breaks down, when the links of the signifying chain snap, then we have schizophrenia in the form of a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers."

The breakdown of the signifying chain causes the breakdown of a coherent self. The postmodern individual, as a result of overwhelming stressors, is unable to unify here or his own biographical experience, psyche, or moral existence. Objective reality disintegrates; ideologies are rattled. The “heterogeneity and profound discontinuities" attack the subject and cause a fragmentation of the personality. So profound is this break down, in fact, that many postmodern theorists declared the death of the subject itself, the end of the ego, the decentering of the psyche.

While this idea is still controversial and difficult to prove, the more conservative observation Jameson makes in “Postmodernism and Consumer Society" conveys more closely the idea of schizophrenia appropriate for my purpose. He states that the schizophrenic does not know personal identity since the feeling of identity depends on our sense of the persistence of the “I" and “me" over time. This stable identity is shaken by such societal evolutions as industrial momentum, general concepts of speed, overpopulation, technological advance in transportation and communication (collapsing distance and time), and movement to urban centers, as Jameson reminds us in The Seeds of Time. In addition, the proliferation of television, newspapers, magazines, email, the internet, movies, television, faxes, long distance calls, cell phones, etc., exposes the subject to myriad religious, political, moral views further destabilizing the ideological foundations of an identity. Terrorism, of course, further contributes to this unwinding.

The anxiety caused by repressive institutions brings us to another element intrinsic to the postmodern condition in our late capitalist period. Jameson even roots the term “late capitalism" in this system of bureaucracy, big government, and big business. He explains:
“As far as I can see, the general use of the term late capitalism originated with the Frankfurt School; it is everywhere in Adorno and Horkheimer, sometimes varied with their own synonyms (for example, “administered society")…which, derived essentially from Grossman and Pollack, stressed two essential features: (1) a tendential web of bureaucratic control (in its more nightmarish forms, a Foucault-like grid avant la lettre), and (2) the interpenetration of government and big business (“state capitalism") such that Nazism and the New Deal are related systems (and some form of socialism, benign or Stalinist, also seems on the agenda)."

Although Jameson believes the use of the term accepts “the expansion of the state sector and bureaucratization" as a natural fact of life, I would argue the “emergence of new forms of business organizations" like multinational corporations, international banks and stock exchanges, and a global, interrelated media-computer network continues to provide overwhelming anxiety and palpable forms of oppression. Thus, in revised form, the Kafkaesque web of bureaucratic control and the penetration of multinational corporations, for example, continue to subsume individuals whose needs are placed behind those of the institution (as certain accounting scandals have clearly shown us), i.e. behind the institution’s bottom line.

Jameson does concede, however, that the enormous scale of multinational capitalism does, in itself, represent a psychological strain. Comprehending the vast global market and communications systems can, indeed, be overwhelming. He acknowledges that this network can be “difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp." This apprehensiveness, in turn, manifests itself in a “whole mode of contemporary entertainment literature – one is tempted to characterize it as ‘high tech paranoia’ – in which the circuits and networks of some putative global computer are narratively mobilized by labyrinthine conspiracies of autonomous but deadly interlocking and competing information agencies in a complexity often beyond the capacity of the normal mind" – the films of Will Smith, Steven Spielberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the novels of Dean Koontz and Tom Clancy, indeed The Matrix, all come to mind.

In these narratives, individuals struggle to find a place, ideological or otherwise, within the matrix, but this project is not limited to fictional cultural narratives. Individuals struggle with this mental chaos in the lived world, daily. Jameson even calls for a “new political art" that will help the postmodern subject draw a clarifying “cognitive map" that will “hold to the truths of postmodernism, that is to say, to its fundamental object – that is to say, to its fundamental object – the world space of multinational capital – at the same time at which it achieves some as yet unimaginable new mode of representing this last, in which we may, again begin to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain our capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as out social confusion."

This is the daily struggle. Individuals strive to find a sense of place within a vast and terrifying landscape. They fight to break through the oppressive framework of this system and find their position. The social confusion, Jameson suggests, can only be resolved through a new kind of cognitive mapping. In this process, individuals would have to consider their own ideological framework and examine government, religious, and corporate institutions. They would then have to map their ideological place within that network.

Thus the institutional oppression of the postmodern world forces the individual to search for an identity that can cope with this pressure. The subservience of the individual to the larger institutions and the anxiety over comprehending such a vast system increases the feeling of isolation and loneliness. Postmodern subjects must fight to maintain an identity and an ideological stance within this threatening web. If they do not, they risk being subsumed by the system and losing their identity – in essence, losing their name. Certainly, the protagonists in DeLillo and Ellis and Pynchon novels have shown us little else.

In the early 1950s, in New York City, Miller was already sensing much of the disturbing truth I have been discussing, and he packed it into Proctor. Postmodern audiences may be fascinated with this protagonist because they recognize in him the postmodern schizophrenic struggling with hegemonic institutions – damn the seventeenth century, they might say, what can I learn from Proctor when I sit down to watched him in the late twentieth century or when I watch him today? Of course, even the most lax student of history could argue repression has always existed. Indeed. As we all know, The Crucible’s main purpose was to satirize McCarthyism. But there is something that intensifies in and disintegrates the postmodern psyche, and it is this increase, this stepping up that Miller captures so well in his play and to which later audiences respond.

In the second prose insert of the first act, Miller describes Procter: “He is a sinner, a sinner not only against the moral fashion of his time, but against his own vision of decent conduct … Proctor … has come to regard himself as a kind of fraud." He’s internally divided. His affair with Abigail Williams has violated the theocratic rules under which he lives, and it has violated his own personal sense of right and wrong. This struggle, between the side of him that desires Abigail and the side of him that loves his wife, causes a split within him. The split destabilizes his identity by shaking his ideological foundations. He is left off balance searching for a stable sense of self.

Later in the first act, Proctor comes to visit the sick Betty Parris and discover the truth about the witchcraft rumor. After he enters Betty’s room, all of Abigail’s friends leave, and the two are left alone with the unconscious Betty. When Proctor leaves, Abigail “springs into his path." We can see Proctor’s fragmentation very clearly in this scene. He “clutched" Abigail’s back “behind the house" once, but now he tries to resist her “concentrated desire." Even his resistance is complicated, however, when we learn that he didn’t sever the relationship himself; rather, his wife found out about the affair and “put" Abby out. Only now, after his wife has taken a stand, is Proctor able to say, “Put it out of mind, Abby." Additionally, Proctor never denies Abigail’s last statement, “You loved me then and you do now!" He admits he has stood under her window some nights, but he says, “Abby, I may think of you softly from time to time. But I will cut off my hand before I’ll reach for you again. Wipe it out of your mind. We never touched." Abigail retorts, “Aye, but we did." The deeply divided Proctor answers, “Aye, but we did not." First, he denies something he knows to be true. Then his last sentence is oxymoronic. One half replies with an affirmative “aye" while the other replies with a negative “we did not." Proctor battles his conscience, religion, neighborhood, wife, and Abby. These pressures, coupled with his libidinal desire, shatter him, breaking him into contradictory elements.

Later, Putnam accuses Proctor of missing too much church. Proctor relies, “I have trouble enough without I come five mile to hear him preach only hellfire and damnation. Take it to heart…there are many others who stay away from church these days because you hardly ever mention God anymore." Here, Proctor takes a stand against the hegemonic ideological state apparatus: the church. He also challenges the economic order arguing: “You cannot command Mr. Parris. We vote by name in this society, not by acreage." Abundant capital may rule, but Proctor resists that system and asserts the rights of the individual.

Again, Proctor turns his attention to Parris who angrily accuses him of starting a faction. “Against you?" Proctor asks. “Against him and all authority," Putnam interjects. “Why then I must find it and join it," Proctor taunts. He underscores this point later announcing, “I mean it most solemnly…I like not the smell of this ‘authority.’" Proctor is angry with the constraints that religion and class order place on him. On another level, as Wendy Schissel points out, he may also be rebelling against the societal sexual mores that prevent him from enjoying his relationship with Abby. As the scene closes, Proctor again argues with Putnam over land, borders, willed property; Proctor is unwilling to let legal complexities and property rights dictate his behavior.

When Mary Warren returns to the Proctor home, she tells John and Elizabeth that Elizabeth has been accused. With no further details, Elizabeth knows that Abigail has accused her of being a witch. She begs John to talk to Abigail, explaining that Abby intends to have her hung and take her place as John’s wife. Proctor answers, “She cannot think it!" Miller follows this comment with the stage direction: “He knows it is true." The divided Proctor says one thing and believes another.

Single handedly, Proctor attempts to defy the authorities that come into his house. He reasons with them explaining that the accusation is fueled by revenge. They don’t listen, and Elizabeth goes peacefully. Proctor has lost his battle with the bureaucratic machine, but he gathers strength for the next round yelling, “I will fall like an ocean on that court!"
As the curtain falls on the second act, Proctor commits himself to the coming conflict. He is strong, determined, ready to take on the theocratic monster. Miller emphasizes Proctor’s strength and commitment by contrasting her to the spineless Mary Warren prostrate, sobbing, “I cannot." Proctor has begun the process, described by Deleuze and Guattari, of breaking through the capitalist barrier, picking up the broken pieces of himself, and building a new identity from these.

The third act brings Proctor to court where he must face Danforth and Hathorne. Proctor loses patience, calls Abby a whore, and confesses. Stripped bare, he stand exposed with the weight of Danforth’s court pressing down upon him. He supplies Danforth with the reason for Abigail’s behavior, but the bureaucratic machinery rolls forward.

In “Arthur Miller’s ‘Weight of Truth’ in The Crucible," Stephen Marino observes that Miller uses the idea of weight ten times throughout the play. Marino believes the playwright reveals the central theme of his play through this device: “How an individual’s struggle for truth often conflicts with society." The most memorable mention of weight comes in the last act when Elizabeth recounts Giles Corey’s death. This image of stones crushing an individual serves as an excellent image for the point I have been discussing.

When audiences first saw The Crucible in the 1950s, the first fissures were beginning to show in a predominantly conformist society, knitted together in order to face two world wars and a depression as a united front. The 1960s saw incredible social change and marks, according to many theorists, including Derrida, the beginning of the postmodern period.

As already noted, anxieties result from the oppressive matrix of bureaucratic control, government intrusion, religious oppression, and corporate domination. This anxiety, in turn, leads to a fragmented identity, crashing into competing ideologies. For Deleuze and Guattari, the subject that does not split, or become schizophrenic, falls victim to capitalist brainwashing and becomes part of the system. However, the subject that does split reveals a rebellious streak within and has at least a fraction of a self that resists societal bondage and can rebuild a cohesive identity. This fraction is the only chance individuals have to be free and “keep their name" – Proctor’s struggle near the end of act four.

C. R. Visweswara, one critic who admires the play, explains: “Slowly, he [Proctor] comes to realize that his soul and his name are virtually synonymous…John Proctor refuses to sell his friends by naming them and tears up his confession and goes to execution but preserves his soul from corruption. He thus attacks the whole system that the court represents. His protest against theocracy’s repressive, irrational use of authority and against the judges, who abnegate the most common sense rules of evidence while they intimidate the community into accepting a self-serving view of justice ends in frustration. It is again this conflict between the rights of individuals and corrupt society which gives The Crucible its universality, its contemporaneity." Many hope to overcome their postmodern struggles in a manner as admirable as Proctor’s.

Critics are touch on Miller’s play. They want a realistic representation of the 1690s; they want Puritanism to be treated fairly; they want a little less pomp; they want a little more poetry; they want a little less polemical heat; they want a little more delicate, humble feeling. By dwelling on their perception of the play’s weaknesses, however, many of these critics may be failing to recognize what is obvious to the lay audience.

Many see Proctor as a metaphor for their own condition in the postmodern era. As a result of conflicting allegiances, to himself and to his society, he displays schizophrenic tendencies; in addition, a quasi-corporate entity threatens to engulf him. By the end of the play, he transmogrifies the fragmentation into a positive experience by latching on to the pieces of himself he likes and rebuilding his identity outside of the rules and regulations of the repressive ideological state apparatus.

Miller’s play just may be the “new political art" Jameson calls for, helping the postmodern subject draw a clarifying “cognitive map." His success becomes a model for us. We admire his newfound clarity and become inspired to draw our own cognitive maps. We respect his integrity and hope to find this same characteristic within ourselves.

July 2005

[back to top]

Home | About Us | Contact | Archive

© 2005 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture

Website Created by Cave Painting